You are listening to the HumAIn Podcast podcast. HumAIn is your first look at the startups and industry titans that are leading and disrupting artificial intelligence, data science, future of work and developer education. I am your host, David Yakobovitch, and you are listening to HumAIn. If you like this episode, remember to subscribe and leave a review. Now, on to the show.

David Yakobovitch

Welcome back everyone to the HumAIn Podcast. The COVID-19 reaction is the main topic in nearly every conversation we are having today around business and society. And today, we’ll be covering a really critical topic. Work at home and workforce virtualization has taken us by surprise and was implemented in haste. But how has the virtual workforce model been working? And what does the future hold in store? 

I’m here today with two experts on the subject: Ashwin Rao¹ is the Executive Vice President of a rapidly growing global staffing and services company: Collabera, Inc³. based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. James Jeude² is the Head of Tech 2025 Consulting and Strategy Services, and has been working with Ashwin on defining and deploying a virtual workforce model. Gentlemen, welcome to HumAIn, and let’s start off by telling us something about your backgrounds.   

Ashwin Rao

Thank you so much, David. I’m the Executive Vice President at Collabera. We are about a $750 million IT services and staffing company. We are a high growth, innovative ID services and solutions provider, headquartered in Basking Ridge, about 16,000 people globally and 60 offices around the world. I’m glad to be here. Thank you.

James Jeude

David, I work with a leading future strategy firm called Tech 2025. We focus on experiential events and discussions to try to start conversations inside of companies. In that group, I manage the consulting and strategy work that follows. I’m also an adjunct professor at New York University, an engineer by training, and a speaker and author on workforce topics.

David Yakobovitch

So, as two living experts in the field, I love having you both here today on HumAIn. And I’m curious, how did this topic come about? What led Collabera to think about a virtual workforce model? Now, to frame that question, you’ve both recently published the first in a series of papers on the virtual workforce model. And you’ve been servicing your clients differently because of COVID-19. 

Ashwin Rao

Yes, David, we got ahead of this quickly. Our entire business is dedicated to helping clients meet their needs for everything from precision staffing of individuals to bulk staffing and solving business function problems. So we had two challenges. One, we had to rethink how Collabera operates in a work-from-home model. And two, we had to redesign our offerings for clients facing new challenges. This is so much more than just disaster recovery. No one had a plan to empty every office, everywhere. We all had plans to back up any individual offices. So we embraced that virtual workforce model as the centerpiece of everything we are doing internally and client facing alike. 

James Jeude

David, Ashwin and I were also talking about why we wanted to discuss this now in the middle of the pandemic. Would it come across a bit odd to be speaking about business and profitability in the midst of this anxiety? And we felt the answer was clear.

We believe that our workforce is the very heart of business. Businesses are the very heart of what keeps society running. And the topic itself is really part of the solution to our challenges, not merely a distraction. 

David Yakobovitch

Now, we’ve all been remote or virtual going on many weeks at this point. And one of the big questions our listeners would be curious about is what is this virtual workforce model? What led Collabera to think about a virtual workforce model? Is it just a fancy name for work-from-home? or is there more to it about remote work, decentralized work, human-computer interactions? Tell me more about it. 

Ashwin Rao

It’s a combination of multiple things, David. We see the virtual workforce model having five key parts. First, we discussed the places we work and what this means for the future of work in general, and shared office space in particular. Second, we thought about the way we work and how teams get assembled for the best effect. Third, we thought about what we work on, the very nature of knowledge. Work changes in this virtual model. 

Fourth, we consider demand management. In the post COVID-19 world, we’ll have crazy swings in demand and uncertainty. No one knows what shape the recovery will take and how long. Therefore, we wanted a virtual workforce model that was highly flexible with demand management. 

Finally, we pause to look ahead to the transition while undertaking this virtual workforce model change. What else should we be doing? And what else should we plan? So, what makes this model work is specifically an emphasis on the word model, it’s that we wanted to respond to all forces involved and not just the work at home. 

James Jeude

So David, when Ashwin and I were planning this paper, we were also thinking about your connections to companies and your ability to talk to them, find out what their concerns are in your podcast series. What sort of changes have you seen in topics just in the first couple months of this tumultuous year? 

David Yakobovitch

You’re absolutely right. The HumAIn podcast, we’ve been around now for going on two years, and the past couple months it has been the big elephant in the room, whether it’s a black or white elephant, or a black swan or whatever we call COVID-19, it’s the event that everyone’s talked about.

We’ve had at least 15 episodes where everyone’s talking something around COVID, whether it’s education or digital transformation. Everyone knows that the recovery, whether it’s a W,V,U or however it’s going to be shaped is about a digital-first society with in-person experiences prioritized second. 

We’re seeing today, even in New York City, the Met Opera House, museums, restaurants, they’re all going virtual-first, with experiences on platforms like Instagram and other virtual experiences. So that’s where we’re moving towards, a digital-first society. And thinking about that here today, I’d love us to walk a little bit through more of those five parts you have of the virtual workforce model, so our listeners can hear more.

James Jeude

So David, let me start. Ashwin and I, we both jumped in and covered them because we think these five parts are really key to the model we talk about. First of all, and probably the most obvious one, is the places we work. And that’s what everyone thinks of when they hear virtual is working from home.

David, I ran a small survey for Tech 2025, which I haven’t published yet. But I can give you some of the early look at that. I was asking people about what they did working at home and what they missed at the office. And I don’t mean, did they miss the coffee and the comradery? I mean, was there literally something they could only do at the office?

What was fascinating was a surprising number of respondents, around 35% so far, that actually had some portion of their job that demanded that they be at the office. It may be, in the case of one healthcare company I worked at, that somebody had to literally go and open the mail because they were still paper-based for certain authentication in certain privacy-related artifacts. And they were having people do a two-hour round trip commute to the office just to open the mail and scan it. 

So when things like that, we got to thinking that you can’t just assume, “well, we’re all on a computer anyway. It doesn’t matter where the computer is”. There’s more to it than that. So we wanted to think about the places we work and when we come back after COVID-19, we probably still need some way to connect as people. 

Ashwin Rao

Second point is the way we work. And I’m telling you, it should be completely rethought. If we can work virtually and remotely, the entire structure of teams and deliverables should be rethought. The good news is, we have proven historical analogy to follow. Agile software development, which has been proven to be a huge success in the past 20 years. 97% of our companies now use Agile for software, but almost no one uses it outside. We have applied agile pod techniques to much of the virtual workforce model we use, ranging from call center enhancements to skilled business process management, and such as complex client financial interactions and marketing activities. 

And if you look at the third point is how. We look at how the nature of work itself could change. We believe that work in an age of AI and automation should become bigger, not smaller. By that, I mean that vendors, partners and teams should be given larger chunks of work with broader outcomes to help distribute the risk and reward of managing uncertainty and choosing the right approach in innovation. 

James Jeude

David, taking that point about bigger chunks of work rather than smaller. We really took a good hard look at demand management. Until now, most demand planning has really, although we worry about supply chains and fractions represented, most demand management, if you look at the major CPGs, for example, have been worried about a few percent. This kind of disruption we have now is totally unheard of in our lifetime. So we believe that a crazy amount of disruption will be coming.

As society tries to reboot, get supply chains moving again, some will start, some will stop. Now it might be tempting to reduce capacity when demand is down, but if it bounces back, you’ve got lost revenue.  If you have capacity that’s higher than demand then you have wasted resources. And that is the eternal question. So Collabera shows that smart use of vendors, partners, smart use of your teams can really help provide overflow for excess capacity and the smart use of idle time when you do have more capacity than you need at the moment can be used for transition thinking. Ashwin, you had some thoughts on transition.

Ashwin Rao

Yes. How to manage transition is a key element. And how you make good use of the idle moments as capacity stays in place waiting for demand to return. For companies that conduct knowledge, work and value added business processing, we believe in training, ideally training teams to a common goal and not just telling everyone to dig up a Ted Talk they like.

David Yakobovitch

Now thinking more about training and also the topic, James, that you brought up, the fourth topic about flexibility. What does this mean today? What is being made flexible? 

James Jeude

David, let me jump right in on that. Ashwin is going to talk about the five types of flexibility, but I want to explain where we got our inspiration. Many of your listeners, if they’ve listened to other podcasts are probably familiar with the concept of working with agile techniques. 

That idea is actually about 20 years old by now. It started with a group called Snowbird 17, which is an interesting read. That group recognized correctly when they met that very few projects anymore involved, kind of precise requirements that we had decades back when you were building, for example, a financial ledger or doing profit and loss analysis. There’s no ambiguity on how you measure profit and loss, but most of the things we’ve done in the last 20 years have been not so clear. What is the absolute specific requirement for having a good web experience? Can somebody tell me that in rules and get me a requirements document that’s 50 pages long? I don’t think so. 

So this virtual pod response really was your reaction to having very quick iteration cycles. Now, what amazed me is I’ve seen very little application of that same proven beneficial tech outside of software. There’s a few companies that we can find, and we mentioned them in our paper. They’re doing innovative work with agile development in marketing, in consumer response, and even coming up with service techniques. So what struck us was sometimes, even if it seems like something should be rules-based, David, such as claims processing, there’s actually a high degree of independence and ambiguity.

So here’s what I mean by that. And follow along in this example. You might think that a claim is very simple. Does it make certain conditions? Yes or no. Where’s the ambiguity? But the computers are already answering those routine claims. It needs to be maybe warmer and more contextual, more sensitive to their needs. Very often in a team context, you cannot write software like this and in an old-fashioned way. It has to be done with agile, to gain feedback. So we thought that the principles of agile could be applied to the virtual workforce and its benefits of flexibility. It’s kind of a long answer, but it’s worth listening to. Ashwin had gone through five key points that I think you wanted to share with the audience.  

Ashwin Rao

The identified five key elements of flexibility: One is location flexibility. We already touched upon it. This is super important. Not only for the COVID-19 work from home, but also to let talent live what it wants and reduce office expenses. Two is skills independence. The traditional approach. What is wrong, we believe, is to choose either between hiring a specialized skill and maybe having it unused much of the time, or expecting a team member to take on a skill that isn’t really their strong point. That’s a false choice. A virtual workforce model that loves skills independence and lets teams form as needed, and when needed. That is very key.

Three is team upskilling. It’s a way to team as teams and train them, review them, motivate them and design work processes as a team. For example, having a full stack engineering team train as a team and deliver as a team is way better than hiding individual skills and magically expecting them to perform as a team. Four is platform independence. Most of us are probably working from servers, but we learned that many companies weren’t really ready to completely separate the office experience from the software experience. Earlier, we mentioned some failures we heard about in VPN secure server access are in lack of secure dongles for specialized work. Or imagine workers were used to sophisticated virtual reality systems to build manufacturing prototypes, but the trend to server and cloud-based software must continue for the virtual workforce to succeed.

Fifth and last is team collaboration. Now we’ve all pretty much worked with global teams in the offshore world. And I think we have worked in that the client and vendor teams and so on, but our research showed that many of the most creative moments started when someone grabbed a whiteboard marker and began to repeat what the team has been thinking and could read the audience and decide who was next and who had something to add on. And so, and forth. This is super hard. Pure world show. So an entirely new method of team engagement needs to be created to ensure a comparable experience. 

Before I go too long on this answer, I’d also like you to know that ability to have this one-on-one video with remote team members is very important.

I was told repeatedly that many important facts, observations or concerns were raised in one-on-one meetings, even if this was only once a year or twice a year. So far, global distributed teams. This is critical. And this intimacy and this one-on-one relationship cannot be lost due to this work from home culture.

David Yakobovitch

It’s so fascinating because at Galvanize, we’re one of the leading training and digital transformation companies around bootcamps with full stack software engineering and data science, and all our teams work in agile and XP and Kanban and all the systems. So we see very clearly in software and data how agile works, but how does agile work in a non-software environment? What are some of those benefits? 

Ashwin Rao

So I’ll take that. Agile is well-documented in the software space. And I won’t repeat the key phrases and approach here, but we see four main benefits. Top-down. 

Agile explains how a corporate team gets down into initiatives and then into epics and then daily tasks called stories. This is standard agile terminology, but you get the idea. So there’s a real consistency to what’s being done and a unifying theme to all work. Very critical for us. Bottom-up. And their agile method encourages and demands that teams cooperate closely, commit to local problem solving when possible, have frequent feedback up the chain and flow research and testing results among other teams. 

In a non-programming environment, these same principles apply. You see marketing companies using agile to build brand launch teams. You see insurance companies using agile to build customer experience teams. And the last point is important. Engineers are taught that the cheapest and strongest part is one that doesn’t need to be there.

In the same way, the most agile process is one that doesn’t even need to exist. We believe that having partners, vendors, and internal teams take on larger outcome-oriented goals and less task-oriented goals. And this allows the parties to focus on bigger goals of adding value and differentiation. 

David Yakobovitch

This makes complete sense. At Galvanize, our teams run their agile processes on JIRA. So we definitely see a lot of that in house, but I see a lot of other companies that aren’t digital companies using tools like Airtable, JIRA, and others to run Kanban processes. If anything we’ve seen throughout COVID-19 is anyone, from a small business to a large fortune 500, can run agile, even for non-software operations.

So taking this full circle earlier in the conversation, James, we were talking a little bit about demand management and how can this change be used with the virtual workforce model? 

James Jeude

So David, I wanted to start by thinking about the most basic graph that I’m sure most of us that have been through some kind of economics class have seen. I could describe it into words since we don’t have video. But imagine a line. Time is the X axis as usual, units of work as the Y axis. So a straight line can be drawn, which is your capacity, and it’s fixed for most companies. But a wavy, uncertain line is the demand. And it going to get even wavier and “uncertainiere”, if that’s a word, as COVID-19 recovery takes place. 

Sometimes that demand is above capacity, which really means that revenue is being lost because you can’t fulfill that demand. Sometimes it’s below capacity, which really means you’re wasting resources. It’s a terrible choice. Do I waste resources? Or Do I lose revenue?  And the answer typically in class is “ouch, you have to figure out an economic model”.

But we believe in a virtual workforce model, we can actually mitigate that equation a little bit. We can. In fact, we can mitigate it a lot. The extremes of this model can be dampened down by having variable resources that are applied to augment the fixed capacity. If demand occasionally rises above capacity, end of quarter analysis, for example, on a sales trend or a new product launch, definitely use trusted partners or flex teams to add capacity. And this is also important. 

If the demand drops below capacity, do not. We recommend dropping your capacity to match demand, because you might get it bouncing back sooner than you think. It really should be that excess capacity is taken to educate the team, redesign processes, cross skill upskill, bill collateral, bill documentation and work on internal projects. So Ashwin and I have been looking at the economics and past recoveries and trying to find analogies. And pretty much the answer is, we don’t have one.

2008 doesn’t count. 2001 doesn’t count. Late 1980s don’t count. World War II doesn’t count. So we think that in this tumultuous time, we encourage everyone, keep your capacity and look towards flexible partners and a different way of thinking for the excess. 

So it’s a long answer, but it’s a really important topic because being able to meet demand is probably the number one opportunity for a company. If you don’t satisfy customers with the right resource, you’re not in business. 

David Yakobovitch

So, how is this applied to an actual business? What examples can you share with us today? 

Ashwin Rao

Let’s think of some examples and contrast traditional business practices with the virtual workforce model. Even pre COVID-19, we were working with a huge client near the top of the Fortune 500. They were pondering the question of how to cut real estate costs. That has always been a major issue for large clients. We started a strategic conversation there. A Seemingly simple request referred was asking the wrong question. We worked with them to start a fundamental rethinking on what work exactly was being performed in their offices and how it was being defined and executed. What started as a real estate study led to a broader evaluation of the task being performed in offices. The study has now begun a series of initiatives that map the existing workforce team, both office-based and virtual to business processes and desired outcomes. It also considers alternatives to achieving those outcomes.

This is analog as to cleaning out a closet before moving to a new apartment. Achieving outcomes by giving vendors higher order work, output responsibility, and letting them manage their own details. We talked about this earlier as well. Less granularity, more strategy. For vendor augmented work tasks, use vendor capabilities to build out, alternate location models for regional development centers. Nearshore or offshore sites as a compliment to a review of work from home distribution. 

For the remaining work that the company wishes to own and manage, build a distributed version to replace that previously co-located teams into pods using the word shield workforce model described here, with service delivery and engagement management outcome. It is a very delivery-driven model. 

And the last is to develop a new demand management process that works to decouple fixed real estate expenses from variable customer demand. I can’t give you more details because it’s a little confidential, but they learned what almost everyone will learn post COVID 19: You don’t need as much office space as you really thought.

James Jeude

And David, another example we ran across is, we think that there are certain jobs that simply have to be done in person. Whether it’s mowing the lawn, although robots may change that. But one of them is healthcare. We all know that healthcare deliverers are the heroes in this entire COVID-19 response.

But when you look at it more carefully, healthcare delivery at some point doesn’t require contact with the patient. Yes, but not as much as you might think. We actually found a tremendous amount of work that could be done offsite and virtually. This saves on real estate. And it also, in these tumultuous times, reduces the risk to patients and the onsite staff, and it fits into a COVID 19 world.

For example, Did you know that 95% of all healthcare hiring since 1990 has not been doctors? but it’s been supporting staff. We believe that healthcare is just one example of how a pure work from home model may not work. You can’t expect a hundred percent of people in healthcare to be at home, but we might really be surprised, if we look at it carefully, that more people can work from home than we imagined, if we rethink what it means to fulfill the needs of their role. 

So technology and good process design can make even healthcare delivery a candidate for a new workforce model. If it works in healthcare, it might very well work for the offices and functions of the listeners you have. 

David Yakobovitch

I cannot agree more. One of the thought leaders who I follow very frequently is John Maeda out of Seattle. And what John does in the computer interaction design space is he released an early report talking all about virtual work as well. And he said, “we’re moving from remote to distributed”, which I think is exactly the topics that James and Ashwin, you’ve both been talking about today. So with that, I really ask, what has Collabera as a company done differently because of the new work from home? 

Ashwin Rao

Collabera is in the business of serving our clients, and we’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that we are ahead of the curve and can help our clients solve problems. 

So the corporate headquarters staff in New Jersey is quite small, about just 1% of the total company. We have a culture of very close collaboration, open office space, morning all-hands meeting, and the other rituals that disappeared with COVID-19. We have kept those going with a disciplined approach to video calling, with team building meetings and with new principles of engagement, we have had regular management meetings 8 o’clock in the morning to figure out what needs to be done in the day and have a day end quick catch-up as well. 

So all this gets you to the fact that this can be done and we are not just preaching, but actually practicing it as well. 

David Yakobovitch

I know for every company it’s been an unprecedented time with a lot of shifts for business operations. Even at Galvanize, we’ve been a company that historically has been both in person with our co-working and online, but we’ve had to pivot to a fully live online model for our distributed teaching in both software engineering and data science. We even have our own coronavirus task force where we’re regularly having briefings and updates to how it’s impacting the business.

So we’ve seen some of that for ourselves. But how about for yourselves at Collabera? How have your services changed that you offer to your clients? 

Ashwin Rao

David, our entire portfolio has now a COVID-accelerated response or a car, as we call it, uplift. So from virtual workforce to virtual digital talent, to virtual contact center to a data visualization, all these services have been given a COVID accelerated response offering, in terms of how we can work in such an environment.

The future as James and I talked about came about our leading in responding to that market. Demand management ideas, for example, specialized skills, flexibility. So we have offered specific packages to help with variable demands, such as picking up the slack on sudden increase in call center workload without our clients having to make those permanent hires.

So we have looked at all our offerings and put in how we can go from the future, not just post COVID, but how to meet the demand for the virtual workforce post COVID as well. 

David Yakobovitch

So as we start thinking about post COVID, whether it’s the great recovery, the slow recovery, the next recovery, we’re beginning to think about what that recovery looks like. So at Collabera, what are some of your next thoughts or closing statements? 

James Jeude

Let me jump in and talk a little more generally about one thing we also discovered about work from home. In our next paper Ashwin and I are going to outline specific best practices that we see. Checklists, case studies and the results of the survey that Tech 2025 is conducting, as I mentioned.

What we found, the one thing that really stood out and I think is worth mentioning, too many of the companies I talked to just turned on the work from home switch and didn’t really set policies and guidelines. 

And here’s a simple example. When working from home, is a given role expected to be immediately available all day long just as if they were at their desk in an open floor plan? or do they have some flexibility to plan their work around family and homeschooling? As long as the work gets done. For example, consultants have been used to this for years when they’re home on Friday. 

They know that by and large, apart from hitting the phone calls on the deadline, they have their own time. Now I actually don’t have an opinion on this. It all depends on the job. What’s interesting, David, is I’ve seen real conflict and unhappiness. 

When one employee has more of an instant on point of view while a colleague is more like, “Hey, I’m going to balance my day, as long as I get it done”.  The anger that comes from an unanswered phone call could be really damaging if there’s no clear agreement on expectation.

So Ashwin and I absolutely believe, and the reason we encourage a COVID task force in these issues, this has to be top-down and cascaded to business units. Do not leave it to each worker to decide how chill or how manic they’re going to be at home. Or you can have real conflicts between teammates, between your company and your clients that will last long after the recovery.

Ashwin Rao

One last thing we realized in our research is there are verbal legal obligations, federal, state, and local, that guide work at home.  At the moment, we see a lot of strong sense of comradery and we are all in it together. This claw may not last long. Humans are humans. We all know that.

For example, companies are expected to cover the incremental costs of working from home if they require this of their employees. In the rush to vacate the office, have you found out if your employees had unlimited data plans at home or did they incur a new expense? Even though they are saving the cost of commuting, you may still be liable for helping them with wifi, computing and even other office expenses.  

So we strongly advise companies to begin now to look at the obligation aside from work from home and not cost on the adrenaline that came from managing this crisis so far, we have done it so far and we will continue to do it. Think back and see what we need to do for planning a better work-from-home environment.

James Jeude

David, a closing thought for me, I learned this during our survey and the interactions with Collabera clients. It really does seem that leading companies control their destinies, and they look to this moment as a chance to think through the entire virtual workforce model. They have to move fast, but also think long-term, which is always a challenge.

And when we ask ourselves, do people have to embrace this or can they go back to normal? The alternative, I suppose, is just do nothing and return to work when you can. And if a company says that, my answer is, I dare you. Your clients and your employees will come out of this with new expectations and they don’t match your old methods.

Without adopting the principles that we’re talking about or something similar, both the revenue side, that is the customer expectations, and the cost side, that is your employees and their expectations, are going to change dramatically. If we only focus on thinking about whether our customers are going to come back with the same wallet open, we’re missing half of the equation. Those who ignore this shift and fall behind and just wait for the new normal to become the old normal are going to find themselves in a very difficult situation.

Ashwin, did you want to find a final point as well?

Ashwin Rao

My closing remarks are this virtual workforce model is here to stay. It’s not going to go away. I mean, it started because of COVID-19, but I think the companies have learned a lot in the past two, three months, and they will implement this for business purposes for more collaboration purposes and economic reasons.

So our clients are demanding how the future is going to be and how we, as their partner, can help them take it to the next level. So we are excited while this opportunity came about, because this is not a great issue out there, but we are excited that companies are thinking differently and we have a role to play here by being agile and by helping them get to that model pretty soon. 

David Yakobovitch

James Jeude from Tech 2025 and Ashwin Rao from Collabera. Thank you for joining us on HumAIn. 

James Jeude

Thank you, David. 

Ashwin Rao

Thank you.

David Yakobovitch

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Works Cited

¹Ashwin Rao, ²James Jeude   

Companies Cited

³Collabera Inc., Tech2025